A&P

by: John Updike

Symbols

Bathing Suits

The bathing suits that the girls wear into the A&P are an emblem of the girls’ casual disregard of the social rules of the small town. They also represent the girls’ deliberate provocation, an attempt to attract the eye of every man they encounter. Sammy is initially drawn to the girls simply because they are scantily clad, young, and attractive. However, for Sammy, the bathing suits come to symbolize freedom and escape from the world in which he finds himself. What he ultimately finds compelling about the girls in their bathing suits is that they have disrupted the system of rules that he has been forced to observe, an observation that Lengel, the authority figure, underscores by trying to enforce the rules the girls have violated. When Sammy quits his job, he significantly removes the corporate uniform (apron and bowtie) that establishes his place in the system. However, the freedom of the bathing-suited girls remains unavailable to him. Sammy ends up alone, in a white shirt his mother ironed for him, wondering what to do next.

Herring Snacks

The Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream purchased by Queenie take on a symbolic value in Sammy’s eyes when he hears Queenie explain that she is buying them for her mother. Instantly, Sammy has a vision of the kind of party at which such herring snacks would be served, and it is a world away from the parties his own parents throw. Sammy mentally contrasts the white jackets, herring snacks, and sophisticated cocktails of Queenie’s social set with the lemonade, Schlitz beer (a working-class brew), and novelty glasses of his own parents’ group. Sammy understands that from Queenie’s perspective, “the crowd that runs the A&P must look pretty crummy.” Sammy’s sense of his own superiority to his surroundings is both heightened and humbled by this realization. But rather than resent Queenie for her social advantages, Sammy envies her freedom from the constraints he himself feels. Quitting his job, then, is both a doomed attempt to impress the girl and a gesture of self-liberation.


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